Alice’s Restaurant

June 26, 2007

Tudor Follies: The Sad Tale of Katherine Howard

Filed under: Henry VIII, History with Mr. Al, Research — aliceaudrey @ 12:58 am

It’s Tudor Tuesday and Mr. Al is back with his short and pithy take on history.  Put down your cereal bowls. We’re going to skirt the edges of “eww” with this one.
Of the six wives of Henry the VIII, Katherine Howard was probably the least prepared for what lay ahead. She had no idea what she was getting herself into. Her mother died when she was a toddler. Her father remarried, but her stepmother had little to do with her upbringing. She was sent to live in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. That woman more or less ignored Katherine from day one. Her education was spotty, at best. By today’s standards Katherine was functionally illiterate. If only the neglect had stopped there.

Basically, Katherine ran wild with damned little adult supervision growing up. This was something that would be brought up at her trial. The Duchess tried very hard to hide her gross incompetence as a foster parent. If her detractors are to be believed Katherine began having sex when she was ten or eleven; A bit early, even in an age when many girls were married at twelve. It seemed to be the story of Katherine’s short life to be used by adults for their own ends. It was certainly the intention of her uncle and the Duchess that she do everything in her power to attract Henry. She was considered pretty by many, of medium height with auburn hair and gray eyes. Beyond the fact that her early life was unsupervised, little is known about Katherine as a girl.

She and Henry were married at the Oatlands, one of Henry’s palaces. The date was July 28, 1540. By odd coincidence, it was the same day as Cromwell’s execution. Henry had decided to demonstrate his merciful side by having Cromwell’s sentence commuted to “simple decapitation.” The London crowds must have been keenly disappointed. It was probably some consolation to them that the executioner bungled the first strike and had to try again to get the head to come off. What the hell, at least they weren’t charged admission.

Henry and Katherine hadn’t even left for their honeymoon before Katherine’s enemies began looking for ways to bring her down. They weren’t really Katherine’s enemies; these people didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about Katherine. The Duke of Norfolk was the target. Having Katherine killed was just a formality. As they dug up the dirt on Katherine’s sordid past, a problem arose. All this stuff was useless unless they could prove that Katherine was still having it off with whomever. Pre-marital sex wasn’t against the law. It certainly didn’t make her look good, but it wasn’t a death sentence.

The man who made it his mission to bring Katherine down was Archbishop of Canterbury Cranmer. He was against what Katherine represented; The Catholic faction. To have this faction in the ascendancy was unacceptable. These people were against everything Cranmer had worked so hard for. Henry’s church was too new to allow this group even a toehold in Henry’s court.

Consequently, Cranmer went to work on gathering evidence that Katherine was still having it off with other men. A job made both easier and harder by Katherine herself. Easier because she made one of her alleged ex-lovers a member of her household. Harder because the only evidence against her came from servants who never saw anything directly. Even under intense questioning, the best these servants could give Cranmer were stories about Katherine spending a few hours with this or that fellow late at night, but never alone. The lady Rochford, of the Queen’s Privy Chamber, was always present. And these gents never stayed the whole night.

If no one was willing to tell Cranmer what he wanted to hear through routine questioning, perhaps a little persuasion was in order. It looked like some people needed a trip to the Tower to loosen their tongues. Two fellows in particular, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were prime suspects. Both had known Katherine before Henry and Dereham had made statements in public that he and Katherine would one day be married.

There were plenty of stories about the two of them while Katherine was still under the Duchess of Norfolk’s roof. And Dereham was the guy Katherine made her private secretary. Not a smart move on her part, particularly since he had no obvious qualifications for the job. The last time Katherine had seen him, before she took up her post as a lady in waiting to Anne of Cleves, Dereham had announced he was going to Ireland to become a pirate! Witnesses testified that Katherine was visibly relived to see him go.
“See ya later, Francis! Yo ho ho and a bottle of Jamison’s! You go Francis! Live the dream! That’s it, keep going, have fun, do forget to write, see ya.” (I made up that last bit.)
Katherine expressed the hope that she would never see him again.

Even though he had not collected solid evidence of adultery, Cranmer felt that he should let Henry in on his suspicions. He was confident that he could prove Katherine’s promiscuous past. That should be enough to get the green light for a full-scale investigation. Poor Henry. By all accounts he really was in love with Katherine. Cranmer’s information was a profound shock to him. Unlike Cromwell, Cranmer was not born to this sort of thing. He was a theologian, not a secret policeman. His concern was for the church. Henry gave him a bad scare by telling him what would happen to him if he didn’t have his facts strait.

After he calmed down, Henry told Cranmer to do whatever he had to do to get to the bottom of this mess. Like Anne Boleyen before her, Katharine was confined to quarters until the matter was settled. This gave her a very bad turn. The fine points of the law were totally beyond her. That Henry even suspected her of adultery was enough to convince her that her fate was sealed.

Did she have a guilty conscience? Not about her behavior after her marriage. There never was any evidence that she had committed adultery. That Dereham and Culpeper wanted to sleep with her after she became Queen, there was evidence.  That Katherine had firmly rebuffed them, there was evidence. Cranmer ran with the former and ignored the latter. Lacking solid evidence, Cranmer did what any unscrupulous 16th century prosecutor would do. He would wring, in the worst sense of the word, confessions out of the suspects.


Thank you Mr. Al.  Now I want to know what happened to Cranmer.  Not what happens because of him.  What happens to him.  Does he get his?



  1. Thank you Mr. Al. Being Norfolk’s nieces didn’t guarantee a long and charmed life huh? Still, a preferred end to that of Cranmer’s though.

    I do have to wonder why courtiers were so short sighted? You would think that seeing court life and politics for what it was, they would have preferred to keep their heads low and to lead humbled lives within the system. It would certainly have improved their chances of reaching a ripe old age.

    Comment by Anastasia — June 26, 2007 @ 2:41 am

  2. Hmmmmmm….poor Katherine. . . and in a way, poor Henry. He was manipulated and used by people he trusted all for their own good. Hope Cranmer’s got his!

    Comment by Ericka Scott — June 26, 2007 @ 11:04 am

  3. Cranmer did indeed get his. But not until Mary became queen. So, technically speaking, it’s outside the scope of this work to tell you what happened to him. Yes indeed, Mary saw to it that that Cranmer fellow paid the price…

    Comment by Mr Al — June 26, 2007 @ 1:08 pm

  4. Don’t you DARE leave that hanging, Dear.


    Comment by aliceaudrey — June 26, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  5. Yes, Mr. Al. Now you have to tell us what happened to Cranmer since you brought it up! Thanks for another interesting edition of the Tudor Follies. Poor Katherine!


    Comment by Laurie — June 26, 2007 @ 4:15 pm

  6. Okay, okay. He was burned at the stake as a heretic. Frankly, Cromwell deserved worse. Thank you once again, loyal readers. Your comments mean alot to me.

    Mr Al

    Comment by Mr Al — June 26, 2007 @ 9:35 pm

  7. Poor Katherine seems doomed from the very beginning of her life. Thanks, Mr. Al. I’m really loving your take on history.

    Comment by Donna — July 18, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

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